The Edelman public relations company, it was revealed recently, has been supporting the publishing of blogs masquerading as private efforts when, in fact, the blogs were actually developed to promote the commercial interests of Wal-Mart. The fear and loathing this has generated throughout the blogoshere is palpable. Outrage abounds. No wonder; deception is never pretty.
But in a way, I view this as a rite of passage. For some time the blogosphere has been held up as a model of self expression, "community" formation, public involvement, and an alternative to "corporate interests." Now we see it as just another (albeit very powerful and engaging) means of expression that can be manipulated for good or ill.
That blogging has been manipulated dishonestly by corporate interests should surprise no one. Of course I'm not saying that's a good thing. Deception like the Edelman/Wal-Mart fiasco is bad. Also bad is the spreading of lies about political candidates.
At the same time there is no reason why a private company shouldn't be able to use the blogosphere to promote its interests, as long as it is honest about what it is doing; that's just simple ethics.
I don't think we should get too hung up on the whether a "public trust" has been violated by Edelman. This experience reinforces that we must be wary about any communications we experience no matter whether the source is an individual, a company, or a government. We always need to be conscious of the trustworthiness and reliability of the source. As technology advances it will inevitably become harder and harder to differentiate true from false, and the opportunities to sow the seeds of fear and mistrust will be difficult to resist for those bent on doing bad things. But this has always been true about the misuses of communications tools; think about Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will.
The very power that makes it possible for commercial interests to misuse the blogosphere also provides the power to combat that manipulation. Edelman's behavior, after all, was revealed and rapidly publicized. But there remains the question about how one guarantees trust and confidence in a world where lies and deception are so easily created and disseminated.
Part of the answer, I believe, is for more unfettered and unregulated communication to take place, not less. Establishing content review boards, codes of ethics, and -- worst of all -- government regulation is not the way to go. Instead, promoting more communication and connectedness can help people learn whom they can trust and whom they can't.
I am under no illusion that establishing trust in such an environment will be easy. Whenever a dialog is established between two parties, either or both of those parties can misuse their communication channels. We see this every day:
- Bloggers shutting down comments due to high volumes of comment spam.
- Wiki owners closing off public comments due to destructive editorializing.
- Newspapers shutting down public participation in editorials due to editorial vandalism.
Unfortunately, one approach to controlling the mis-use of communication channels is to restrict access to those communications channels. This leads to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Somehow we need to establish a balance between the need to manage the conversation while ensuring maximum and appropriate use of the tools for participating in the conversation.
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